Introduction to The Ten Commandments
If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Exodus 20. We are beginning a series on the Ten Commandments, but this series is somewhat unique, in that we’ll begin our study back in Exodus 19. I want to begin to day with God’s word in Exodus 20:1, and we’ll read the whole of the Ten Commandments and the brief epilogue at the end. Let us hear God’s holy and inspired word:
“Then God spoke all these words, saying, I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
1. You shall have no other gods before Me.
2. You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.
3. You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain.
4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
5. Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be
prolonged in the land which the LORD your God gives you.
6. You shall not murder.
7. You shall not commit adultery.
8. You shall not steal.
9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
10. You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
All the people perceived the thunder and the lightning flashes and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood at a distance. Then they said to Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen; but let not God speak to us, or we will die." Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may remain with you, so that you may not sin.’ So the people stood at a distance, while Moses approached the thick cloud where God was.”
Amen. Thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts. Let’s pray.
Our heavenly Father, we do bow our heads before You and ask that You would open our eyes to behold wonderful truth from Your word. As we spend these moments together, make them profitable, we pray, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
The Ten Commandments are among the most well known passages in all of the holy Scripture, along with the Sermon on the Mount, and the Golden Rule, and Jesus’ own articulation of the Two Great Commandments, and the Twenty-Third Psalm, and the Thirteenth Chapter of First Corinthians, the so-called ‘Love Chapter.’ The Ten Commandments are among the best known of all the sections of Scripture. Yet, the Ten Commandments are a source of controversy for many. There are many very well meaning, Bible-believing Christians, who do not believe that the Ten Commandments have anything to say to the believer. In fact, they believe that any attempt to obey the Ten Commandments is in and of itself a rejection of the grace of God in the gospel. There are other believers who believe that obedience to God’s law is important but that that obedience should be New Testament obedience, and if the commandments are repeating the New Testament, then they are to be obeyed. But if they are not, then they are to be put aside. There are still others who believe that we should not only obey the Ten Commandments, but they we should also obey all the judicial law of the Old Testament. And they argue that the Ten Commandments and the judicial law of the Old Testament are all permanent and personally binding on Christians in our day and age, and therefore we should obey all of that law. And there are even Christians who believe that we need to obey the moral, the judicial, and the ceremonial laws, even down to the food laws of abstaining, say, from shellfish or from pork. So there is a lot of controversy about the Law of God.
What we’re going to do in this series of messages is work through Exodus 19 and 20, put the Law of God in its context of God’s work of redemption for Israel, and then we’re going to be constantly going to the New Testament to see how the New Testament applies these principles that are set forth here in Exodus 19 and 20. Now, let me just pause and say, this series on the Ten Commandments is actually part of a larger series on the Book of Exodus that we’ve been studying here at First Presbyterian Church. We started in exodus 1, and we’re going to go all the way thorough to the end of this great book, til we reach Exodus 40. But this particular section is unique in that it encapsulates some of the principles that have been revealed from Exodus 1 through 18, and foreshadows some of the principles and concerns that will be set forth in chapters 21 through 40. So, you get a little microcosm of the book right here in Exodus chapters 19 and 20.
Let me tell you some of the distinctives of this series. There are many pastors who preach on the Ten Commandments. There are lots of books on the Ten Commandments. There’s a staggering variety of books on the Ten Commandments, and you may be wondering, “What’s different about this different series?” Let me say at the very outset, I’m not simply trying to be different or novel, but I do want to be deliberately different in approaching this passage for a couple of reasons.
I. Why Study the Ten Commandments?
First of all, there are very good expositions of the Ten Commandments themselves, but very often those expositions of the Ten Commandments do not set the commandments in their context of Mt. Sinai and the meeting of the children of Israel with God at Sinai. Hence, they are not fully able to appreciate some of the beautiful truth that is being set forth in this passage. So there are four or five distinctives about what we are going to do in this series that I would like to present. We are not simply going to cover the Ten Commandments. We’re going to begin in Exodus 19, but more particularly we’re going to begin with the preface to the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:1, and we’re not going to conclude the series on the Ten Commandments until we’ve worked our way all the way to 20:21, which includes the epilogue at the end of the Commandments, running from verses 18-21. That epilogue is important because it talks about the fear of God, and this epilogue also tells us to some degree what God was attempting to do by speaking the Ten Commandments to the people of God with His own voice at Mt. Sinai. It seems to me that tells us a lot about how the Ten Commandments are meant to function in the believer’s life, and if we understood a little more about the context of Exodus 19 and 20, we would be less apt to say things like, “Well, the law tells us our need of Christ, but once we have Christ, we no longer have need of the law.” Well, in this passage, one of the things that is crystal clear is that God was giving the law to believers. The law was not an instrument to bring them to belief; it was an instrument to keep them from walking in sin having already trusted in God, having already put their faith in Him.
One of the things we’ll emphasize when we get to Exodus 20:1 is that grace is before law, and that’s not a New Testament principle, but an Old Testament principle. In the Christian life, God’s grace precedes God’s law. It is God’s grace that enables us to obey God’s law. It’s not that if we obey the law, God will show us grace. It’s because God has shown us grace that we are able to obey the law. That’s one thing we’ll see beautifully by looking at the context of the Ten Commandments, and not just looking at the Ten commandments themselves.
It seems to me this is important as well, because many people will teach the Ten Commandments as a sort of ‘moral formula’ for a happy life, and of course, it’s true that when you obey God’s law, God has certain blessings in store for those who are obedient. We don’t want to discount that or deny that in any way. But the fact of the matter is, many people will speak as if you could keep the Ten Commandments, and if one kept the Ten Commandments, one would have a happy, blessed life, and so the key to a happy life becomes keeping these moral principles. And that’s not how God intended the Ten Commandments to function. He set them in a specific context and invested them with a greater significance than ‘life principles’ that make one’s life happy.
Secondly, as we work through each of the commandments we are going to show the New Testament interpretation and application of the commands. When we get to the 7th Commandment, for instance, on adultery, we are going to go right to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 5, and we’re going to see how Jesus Himself interpreted and applied the 7th commandment to His followers. That will do several things. First of all, it will remind us that Jesus did not see the Ten Commandments as something irrelevant for His disciples. He expected His disciples to be obedient to the Law of God, and not only obedient to the Law of God, but more obedient to the Law of God than were the Pharisees. Now, we often think in our day and time that the Pharisees were the most law-keeping, nit-picking people that ever came along. But you’ll never find Jesus accusing the Pharisees of that. Actually, what He stresses is that though they talk a lot about how much they love the Law, they in fact, in their living, show that they don’t care much about the Law at all. And what He desires is followers who truly care about God’s Law. So, by looking at the New Testament interpretation of each of the Commands, we’ll see how Jesus and His apostles apply God’s Law to believers, and we’ll also see the distinctive, New Testament emphases on how to understand these particular commands.
As we study through the commands, I will try and give the Old Testament backdrop to each command. There is a specific application of each command by Moses in his further law, in Exodus 21 and following, and in Leviticus, and in Deuteronomy, and of course, the Prophets and historical writers of the Old Testament who are constantly applying the moral norm of the Ten Commandments. So, one way we will be able to appreciate how broad and significant this law was is by studying its Old Testament context as well.
Thirdly, this will be a study of the Ten Commandments that is neither legalistic nor antinomian. By that I mean, this will be a study of the Ten Commandments that neither says “You are saved by keeping the Law, You’re saved by your obedience to the Ten Commandments, and If you keep the Ten Commandments God will accept you and save you.” That’s legalism. The teaching that one is saved by one’s own keeping of the Law. Christians do not believe that because Christians understand that we are not able to fully keep the Law, and therefore the only way we can be saved is if someone keeps that Law in our place and we are credited with His righteousness. And lo and behold, that’s precisely what God did in Jesus Christ. He kept the Law in our place, and in God’s mercy, God counted us as righteous in Him as we believed on Him, as we put our faith on Him. So this will not be a legalistic study of the Ten Commandments that says if you will just keep these commandments you will be saved, or if you just keep these commandments you will be a Christian, or if you will just keep these commandments you will be accepted by God. That is a false teaching and it’s not even faithful to the original context of the Ten commandments. One was not saved by works in the Old Testament and saved by grace and faith in the New Testament. One is saved by grace in both the Old and New Testament. So we will not fall prey to a legalistic interpretation of the Ten Commandments.
On the other hand, we will not fall prey to an antinomian view of the Ten commandments. There are many Christians, as I have already mentioned, who do not believe that the Ten Commandments have any place in the Christian life. In fact, there are some Christians who do not believe that obedience has any place in the Christina life. They would say we have been freed from the Law, we are not under Law, we are under grace, and therefore to call a Christian to obedience and specifically obedience to the Ten Commandments, is to reenslave Christians. That’s a false teaching in and of itself. Paul, in Romans 5, says “that grace reigns in righteousness.” How do you know grace is reigning in a person’s life? Well, because righteousness is reigning in their life. Paul tells us in Ephesians 2:8-10, that “we are saved by grace through faith, and that not of ourselves, it is a gift of God so that none can boast.” But he goes on to say that “we are created in Christ Jesus for good works.” In other words, we are saved by grace in order that we can live a life of holiness, a life of godliness, a life of obedience. This is very, very important to understand in the New Testament. So, the view that God’s commands don’t mean anything anymore, now that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, is a false teaching and we will avoid that particular view. Yet, that view is out there. There are all sorts of Christians that are trying to teach other Christians that they don’t have to do, they only have to be, or they don’t have to obey, they only have to trust. This type of teaching is rampant and we will show it is wrong as we study the Ten commandments together.
So our study is distinctive because it will be neither legalistic or antinomian.
Fourthly, our approach to the Ten Commandments will show how the great themes of the Book of Exodus come to culmination at Mt. Sinai. We are going to see how the theme that Israel was saved to worship comes to a glorious climax as the people of God meet with the God of Israel at Mt. Sinai to worship Him, to draw near to His presence, to hear Him speak, to life up their voices acknowledge their faith and trust in Him, and their gratitude to Him for His redemption of them out of Egypt. We will show how those sorts of themes come to culmination at Mt. Sinai.
Fifthly, we will see how these commands we study here in Exodus 20 are family instructions. They are not just a code of laws that might be pronounced to a generic population under the control of a specific judgment. Often times, when we hear law, our minds immediately go to whatever our state laws are, or whatever our national laws are. Our minds think of these volumes and volumes of civil and criminal code, and of course there is both civil, and criminal and judicial, and national law found in the Old Testament. And there is civil and criminal and national law found in the Book of Exodus. But the Ten Commandments are not civil law. They are not a code for national behavior. They are, indeed, community law and they are personal law, but especially they are family instruction. The Hebrew word for law, torah, means instruction, among other things. And we often think of law in terms of code law, criminal law, civil law, part of the statutes that constitute a nation or state or community, and though that’s not an incorrect definition of the word ‘law,’ that would be an incorrect definition of the word ‘law’ in relation to the Ten commandments. Because these Ten Commandments are God’s instructions to His own household. They are His family law, just as a father says to his children, “These are the household rules, this is the way we’re going to act, this is the way we’re going to live, this is the way we’re going to look, this is the way we’re going to be different from the world,” so God gathers His young children around Him, gathers Israel around Him, and says, “This is what I’m like, this is what you’re going to be like, because you’re going to be like Me. I am a holy God and therefore you’re going to be holy. I am a God who is loving towards His enemies, and you’re going to be loving toward your enemies. I am a God is bound up in love, and therefore you’re going to love your neighbors. I am a God who is to be respected, and therefore you are going to respect Me.” So, He sets out this Law before them, but it is family instruction. It is not an impersonal, distant, detached, code for a society or nation or state, it is family instruction for the people of God. And in all these way, our study of the Ten Commandments is going to be a little bit different from other studies that you may have undertaken.
of the Ten Commandments
Now, there are beautiful words of application for the Ten Commandments found in a document called The Westminster Larger Catechism. The Westminster Larger Catechism was written by a group of men called the Westminster Assembly Divines in the 1640s in England. These men, some were Presbyterian, some were Episcopal, and some were Independents. They got together to attempt to write down a faithful, biblical statement of what Christians believe that the Bible teaches about various doctrines, and one of the documents they produced was called The Larger Catechism. And in The Larger Catechism, it asks, “What rules are to be observed for the right understanding of the Ten Commandments?” And it gives the following rules. These are not rules for interpreting the Ten Commandments as much as they are rules for applying the Ten Commandments.
First, it says that “the Law is perfect, and binds everyone to full conformity in the whole man to the righteousness of it, and to entire obedience forever, so as to require the utmost perfection of every duty and to forbid the least degree of sin.” So this particular rule of application says that when you study the Ten Commandments you need to understand that they don’t simply bind you to faithful superficial and outward behavior, but that they impact the whole man and require complete obedience. Think of it. The Bible says that if you keep the whole law and yet stumble at one point, you’ve broken the whole law. And this is the very principle that is being set forth in this first counsel for understanding and applying the Ten Commandments.
The second counsel is that "the Law is spiritual and it reaches the understanding, will, affections, and all other powers of the soul, as well as words, works, and gestures." Now, of course, this particular truth is reiterated by Jesus in Matthew when He says, “I tell you, if a man even looks at a woman and lusts in his heart, he has already committed adultery.” In other words, just because you don’t act out publicly or externally a particular sin doesn’t mean that you’re not guilty of that sin. So, the Law extends even to the heart.
The third interpretation says that “One and the same thing in different respects is required or forbidden in several commandments.” So, for instance, there is a command that we not bear false witness. That command reminds us that we need to take care for our neighbor’s good name. We are not to bear witness that will damage our neighbor’s good name. But that very command is entailed in the command to treat God’s name with respect, and as we treat God’s name with respect and we realize that men and women are created in the image of God, we realize that we can’t keep the third commandment and wreck or slander or libel peoples’ names. Because when we slander someone or we gossip about someone or we bear false witness against someone and it brings them harm, we are doing what? We are disrespecting a person made in the image of God. So, the third commandment is tied in with the commandment not to bear false witness.
Fourth, The Larger Catechism says this rule is very helpful in understanding and applying the commandments. "Where a duty is commanded, the contrary sin is forbidden. And where a sin is forbidden, the contrary duty is commanded.” So, for instance, when the Law says, “You shall not commit adultery,” it does not just mean that you should refrain from adultery, but it also means that in your marital relations you should be absolutely loyal and faithful. So it’s not only giving a negative, it’s also giving a positive in that command not to commit adultery.
The fifth rule is that "what God forbids is at no time to be done. Yet, what He commands is always our duty, and yet every particular duty is not to be done at all times." This is a very practical word of application. If God says, ‘Don’t do something.” There’s never a time when it’s O.K. to do it. But if God tells you to do something, well, you can’t do everything that God tells you to do all at once. And yet, you’re not breaking God’s commands by not doing everything He tells You to do all at once. It’s a very practical rule that’s especially helpful for people with tender consciences. As you study the Bible and read the Bible you learn new things that God expects you to do, and you can’t do all those things all the time at once. So, this application helps you understand that particular point.
The sixth point of application is that “under one sin or duty, all of the same kind are forbidden or commanded, together with all the causes, means, occasions, and appearances thereof, and provocations thereunto.” In other words, if God commands you to refrain from some sin, or He commands You to some duty, then all the other sins or duties in that particular category are included. For instance, the commandment that you shall honor your father and your mother, doesn’t just mean your personal, natural, birth or adoptive mother and father. It can also extend to your spiritual fathers and mothers, as Paul makes clear in 1 Timothy 5. We’re supposed to treat elder men and women with respect and dignity. And that’s an application of the commandment to honor father and mother. We’re to treat those who are civil authorities, our fathers and mothers who are in civil government, we’re to treat them with respect and honor, Paul says in Romans 13. And these are applications of that more general principle.
In the seventh application, The Larger Catechism says that what is forbidden or commanded to ourselves, we are bound according to our places to endeavor that it may be avoided or performed by others according to the duty of their places. So, when God tells us not to do something, we are to help our neighbors also not do that, and when God tells us to do something, we are to help and encourage our neighbors to do that. So, the classic story here is when a little child learns that another child’s mother has told him or her not to leave the yard, and the first child goes over and tries to tempt the other child to come and play, then that is wrong. It’s a natural inclination for sinners to do that sort of thing, and that application is saying that we need to have a concern to encourage obedience among our neighbors. So, if God has commanded us not to do something, then we are not to encourage our neighbors to do that. And if God has commanded us to do something, then we ought to encourage our neighbor to do that.
The eighth and final principle of application is that “in what is commanded to others, we are bound according to our places and callings to be helpful to them, and to take heed partaking with others in what is forbidden to them.” So we are to help other people according to our own situation and position to keep the commands, and we are not to participate with them in breaking the commands. Of course, you can see in all of these things that they are not interpretative principles of the commandments, but they practical principles of applying the commandments, and I find them very helpful. When we start working through these commandments together, perhaps you will also see ways that those practical applications will help you work out what God would have you do in your own life in regard to keeping the commandments.
The Ten Commandments Still Apply Today?
One last thing. What about the gigantic issue, “Do the Ten Commandments still apply?” There are many people who do not believe that the Ten Commandments still apply today. They want to know, “Why should we obey the commands? Why are the Ten Commandments still relevant? Why are they still authoritative in our day and time?” There are many good answers to that question, but let me just mention a few things.
First, we have to remember that the Ten Commandments themselves are God’s Law. As God’s Law, they are a reflection of His character, and they are unique. Whereas, some of God’s Law was written on parchment or scrolls, the Ten Commandments were written by God with His own finger on stone. Furthermore, they were spoken by God to the children of Israel at Sinai in Exodus 20, and they are clearly distinguished as something that is permanent and reflective of the character of God and meant for all ages. The old Jewish rabbis used to remind people that The Commandments were given to Israel in the wilderness, not in the land of Israel, so we see that they were meant for all nations and not just for Israel. And that’s a very important point to remember. God gave all sorts of indications that these commands were unique and that they were applicable to all times and peoples and places.
Secondly, because these commands are a reflection of the character of God, and the character of God does not change, and He Himself is the ultimate pattern of what is good and right and holy, it’s obvious that what is good and right and holy does not change. So, when we move into the New Testament era, what is good and right and holy is the same as was in the Old Testament era with regard to the moral law. Now, the civil law may change, and the ceremonial law may change, because God gave that law to specific situations and circumstances and purposes; but not His moral law. His moral law forever binds all. Therefore, since the moral law is based on who He is and it’s based on His character and His character doesn’t change, then righteousness is the same in the New Testament as it is in the Old Testament.
Thirdly, we have to remember that Jesus Himself emphasized that He did not come to abrogate the Law. Now, in Matthew 5:17-19, when He stresses this, He’s especially talking about the authority of the whole of the Old Testament, but we also learn from the book of Galatians that Jesus was born under the Law and that He kept the Law. So, Jesus, by His own example was faithful in keeping the whole of the moral Law of God. Since we are to be conformed to His image, God says in the New Testament, and He kept the Law, then we will need to keep the Law if we are really going to be like His image.
Another thing to realize is how often the New Testament references the Ten Commandments as authoritative rules for Christian living. In Ephesians 6 and Romans 13, even when he’s speaking to congregations that are predominantly Gentile Christian, not Jewish Christian, Paul will quote the commandments. In Romans 13 he’ll say, “Love is the fulfilling of the Law.” And he’ll tell those Gentile Christians to fulfill the Law. In Ephesians 6, he’ll quote the command to “honor father and mother.” And he’ll quote it to a congregation that is predominantly Gentile, and expect them to obey it. James in James 2 will talk about the “royal law” and expect us to fulfill God’s Law, and so there are numerous passages in the New Testament that make it clear that believers are to obey the Law.
Perhaps I have not convinced you so far. We haven’t had much time to do that, but I am going to be trying to convince you as we work through this series that God’s Law is not only relevant for us today, it continues to be authoritative for us today, and it is not only glorifying to Him when we are obedient to the Law, it is good for us. For the Lord who gave the Law is good, and He gave the Law not to bind us, but to free us, for true freedom is freedom from sin to obedience, not freedom from obedience in order to sin. You see, sin is the breaking of the Law, so wherever there is sin, there is lawlessness. John tells us that, and so the opposite will be true amongst those in whom God’s grace is operative. He will free them from sin to obedience, and that true Christian grace-wrought obedience will be far more free than any freedom to do as one pleases, to please oneself and to sin against God. May God bless us as we study these things together.